When discussing the Smugglers of Dorset it is worth remembering that every cove, fishing village and harbour in the British Isles has tales of smuggling. Indeed, a significant cross section of Dorset folk supplemented their meagre incomes by moonlighting. Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers turned their hand to smuggling when they had the chance. Almost every harbour, beach or gap in the cliffs was a smugglers’ haunt. Tea, tobacco, lace, silks and brandy formed the bulk of the cargoes. High import duties were imposed upon all these articles, and they were sufficiently valuable to make the risk- taking worth while.
In 1736 a Smuggling Act was passed which imposed severe penalties upon those who were engaged in this illicit trade.
‘Riding Officers’ were placed at strategic points along the coast, and efforts were made to prevent their becoming intimate with the local people. They were not allowed to marry girls from the neighbourhood in which they worked, and they lived in special quarters. They were paid only £20 a year, and out of this they had to keep three horses and a man to help them. As a result they were easily corruptible.
“It was not until the coastguards were organised in 1831 that the smugglers found effective opposition and, with the abolition of many of the duties during the next twenty years, the old gangs disappeared.”
(Desmond Hawkins, ‘Dorset Bedside Book, 1996)
There were many involved in a small way in helping to hide the booty but there a few personalities that really stood out as much as the following two smugglers who dominated eighteenth century smuggling along the Dorset coast.
First among these was Issac Gulliver who was born in 1745 at a time when smuggling was already in the ascendancy. Isaac was a born leader and had an instinctive flair for business. His network of contraband carriers extended his “patch” as far afield as Bristol, Salisbury and Oxford. He finally retired as a respectful gent having bought his pardon from the king. He left his daughter a significant dowry and she in course married a local banker, Edward Castleman. Interestingly his bank, the Fryar & Castleman bank subsequently became the National & Provincial bank which after several further mergers merged with the Westminster bank to become the NatWest bank in 1968. In its day a major part of one of the largest banks in the world!
Who says crime doesn’t pay?
The second character, Jack Rattenbury, became known as the Rob Roy of the West and operated from Lyme Regis to Weymouth including Bridport harbour. After 32 years successfully beating the exciseman he settled down & wrote a book about his adventures and Memoirs of a Smuggler was successfully published in 1837.
Always at the centre of the smuggling trade was the pubs and many of Dorset’s, pubs still remaining are steeped in the legend and folklore surrounding these smuggling days. The Bridport Arms in West Bay is one such pub which was a hotel on the beach, originally a farmhouse from the 16th/17th century and has been in continuous operation since 1794, the year after Jack Rattenbury embarked upon his career of smuggling. West Bay was his wife’s hometown.
The Drax Arms, Bere Regis, was named after the local landed gentry who are still prominent today with Richard Drax the current MP for South Dorset. In 1780 the Drax Arms was described as:” a place of resort of the most notorious and dangerous smugglers.
There are many more interesting pubs to visit steeped in the legend of the Dorset smugglers, if you would like to visit and learn more why not book a walking holiday with, Footscape. We will arrange the perfect walking tour with accommodation and luggage transfer all arranged. Our walking guides will not only provide detailed step by step instructions but also provide you with the history and folklore of the areas you are walking through.